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Fort McMurray’s Muslim community plans an ambitious, multicultural mosque

posted on: Feb 22, 2015

It’s Friday at noon, and a balmy minus 5 – pretty good for Fort McMurray in late November. Crowds are streaming in on foot, and cars are lined up for blocks. Everyone’s heading to the downtown mosque, the Markaz ul Islam, trying to make it in time for afternoon prayers.

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A man from West Africa comes in with one from Pakistan, walking past an SUV whose licence plate sits in a frame marked “Dubai.” Somali cab drivers are parking, taking a break from their shifts. Most of the faithful are wearing parkas, some with a shalwar kameez underneath. Others arrive in bright yellow construction vests, on their way back from the oil sands. Fort McMurray is home to one of Canada’s fastest-growing Muslim communities.

The old mosque – opened in 1990, before oil money started pouring into this Northern Alberta city – is showing its age. In the slush-stained foyer where the men remove their shoes, a well-used light switch is held together by masking tape. On Fridays, demand is so high that they need to split the traditional communal prayer into three shifts, a couple hundred worshippers at a time.

Outsiders can see Islam as a monolith, but the religion incorporates more than a billion people worldwide, hailing from dozens of countries and speaking even more languages. Larger Canadian cities don’t have a single Muslim community so much as many different ones, each with its own mosques, support networks and social centres.

Not so in Fort McMurray. Due to the nature of Canada’s immigration patterns and to explosive growth in the Alberta oil industry, every sect, every ethnicity, has sent envoys to this boom town. Thrown together in a small space over a short span of time, Fort McMurray’s Muslims are engaging in an inadvertent social experiment, striving for a goal that eludes much of the Islamic world today: unity.

This spring, if all goes according to plan, an enormous Islamic centre will start to rise across town, its minaret an exclamation point in city’s skyline. The $50-million, 150,000-square-foot complex will include a K-12 school, a rec centre and a swimming pool. Far more than just a house of prayer, it will be a one-stop shop for families interested in worship, school and sport, and will be capable of accommodating more people for Friday prayers than can fit in the junior hockey arena for the games of the Fort McMurray Oil Barons.